Born: October 15, 1916 (Toronto)
Died: May 19, 2014 (Toronto)
Bert Conacher’s oldest brother, Lionel Conacher, known as The Big Train, was voted Canada’s athlete of the half-century in 1950. The great all-round athlete is enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Bert’s other older brother, Charlie Conacher, known as The Big Bomber, is also in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Bert played industrial league hockey in Toronto before, during and after the Second World War, but his own professional aspirations ended when he lost an eye playing road hockey with his brother Charlie.
The twins were the youngest of 10 children born to Elizabeth Conacher, whose husband, Ben, took many extra jobs to supplement his pay as a teamster. One of those moonlighting jobs included cleaning the snow from the local outdoor ice rink. The Conacher family lived on Scollard Street, the children attending Jesse Ketchum school, whose principal encouraged participation in sports.
The twins, Bert and Roy, played for the West Toronto Nationals of the junior-A Ontario Hockey Association. In 1935-36, Roy, a forward, led the league in scoring with 12 goals in 10 games, while Bert, a defenceman, scored four goals in eight games. (Bert’s only penalty for the season was a fighting major assessed after he battled defenceman Red Storey of the Barrie Colts in a November game. Storey went on to become an NHL referee.)
The Conacher twins guided the Nationals to a Memorial Cup championship by defeating Saskatoon 5-1 and 4-2 in best-of-three series held at Maple Leaf Gardens. Some other future NHL players on the Nationals’ roster included Red Heron and Bill Jennings. The team was coached by Leafs star Hap Day, who would go on to coach the Leafs to five Stanley Cup championships. The Nationals general manager was Harold Ballard.
Conacher, a bruising defenceman whose bodychecks caused injuries, spent eight seasons with teams in the Toronto Mercantile Hockey League. He dressed for such teams as Royal York, Red Indians, RCAF, York Arsenal, Stafford Industries (where he was paired on defence with Jack Stafford, son of the owner of the sponsoring company), United Auto Workers, Bowser Orphans and Swansea Sentinels.
In a game played in late December, 1940, Bert was at the heart of brawl with players from the Toronto Donnell-Mudge. “The contest was a rugged sort of affair that broke out in a wild free-for-all in the last period,” the Toronto Star reported. “Earl Selkirk of the D and Emers, who is generally noted for his even temperament, picked Bert Conacher as his opponent to start the fistic action. For a few seconds some healthy punches were traded between the big fellows. Referee Freddie Heintzman finally managed to get them apart, only to have the Conacher twins start it all over again. This brought big Ab Tonn and Les Vickery on the scene as opponents and the Xmas good-will between men was forgotten.” The reference to Conacher twins was a joking one, as Jim Conacher of Donnell-Mudge was born in Scotland and was unrelated to the Toronto family.
His most productive season was 1944-45 when he scored 10 goals and added five assists in 24 games for the United Auto Workers.
The defenceman also played two postwar seasons in the International Hockey League for the Detroit Bright’s Goodyears.
Conacher also played football in 1944 with the hapless Oakwood Indians. The Indians lost all four games played in the wartime Ontario Rugby Football Union season, scoring just 21 points, while surrendering 106.
Older brother Lionel famously scored 15 points for the Toronto Argonauts when they defeated Edmonton 23-0 to win the 1921 Grey Cup. Lionel was also the Ontario amateur wrestling champ in 1916, the year the twins were born. When a new plaque was unveiled at Toronto’s Lionel Conacher Park in 1992, Bert was one of the only two surviving siblings well enough to attend.
Lionel Conacher, who was serving as a Liberal member of Parliament, died two days after his 52nd birthday in 1954, suffering a heart attack in an exhibition softball game pitting politicians against the press gallery. Charlie Conacher died in 1967, aged 58. Roy Conacher died in 1984, aged 68.
Bert was also the uncle of three NHLers in Murray Henderson, Pete Conacher and Brian Conacher.